By default, human nature is set to lazy. And that’s only been exacerbated by the app-happy era we live in – where we can have a burger from our favourite dive bar without ever having to put on pants.
The positives, at least for consumers, are overwhelming. Apps such as Uber Eats, Deliveroo and – until it left the local market a few months ago – Foodora offer us the precious commodities of time and convenience for a delivery fee of around $5.
The negatives presented themselves soon after delivery services did, arguably hitting restaurants the hardest – whopping commissions, disastrous customer experiences, a drop in food quality, dubious contracts – backlash from the hospitality industry is not new news. So why don’t businesses abandon the services altogether?
“We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” says Jimmy Hurlston, co-owner of Easey’s, one of Melbourne’s most beloved burger institutions (which happens to be located inside a train carriage, on top of a roof).
If Easey’s ditches Uber Eats, Hurlston says a customer is more likely to get their burger – and future burgers – from a competitor in Melbourne’s densely populated burger scene. But his main concern with the service is that his product is being misrepresented.
“What the customer sees on an app and what’s actually happening isn’t always translated,” Hurlston says. “If you order from Easey’s, it’ll come up with, ‘Restaurant is preparing your food’, until the driver comes and collects it. So that food might be ready long before the driver arrives. So everyone thinks, ‘Why the fuck are they taking so long to make my food?’
“Sometimes the drivers come and, because it’s been so long, you have to make everything again. If you don’t, what goes out to the customer is a very sub-par product.”
Hurlston says the problem can be compounded by drivers who don’t want to wait for the meal to be remade. “Sometimes they just cancel and leave,” he says. “At the end of this experience, a customer is not going to say, ‘Fuck Uber Eats’. They’re going to say, ‘Fuck Easey’s, I’m never ordering from them again’.”
A trend could be emerging, though: a handful of businesses around the country is moving away from delivery apps. Sydney’s Petty Cash Cafe left Uber Eats in January this year, decrying the service in a Facebook post as “exploitative”, and in April Burgers by Josh followed, abandoning Uber Eats citing unreliable drivers (they still work with Deliveroo). In May, Adelaide’s Antica Pizzeria ditched the services due to concerns of food being mishandled. And Evie’s Disco Diner in Melbourne walked away in August because of sustainability concerns – driving one cheeseburger across the city isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.
Uber Eats and Deliveroo usually take a cut of 30 to 35 per cent of each sale in an industry where profit margins are already razor thin. Uber Eats dictates restaurants must charge the same amount for dishes on the app as they do in the venue, so there’s no opportunity to make back that cut.
Mitch Orr knows this pain all too well. He’s co-owner and head chef of Sydney’s Italo-Asian pasta joint ACME.
“It's a pretty large hit,” Orr says. “If you're employing extra staff to handle the apps then you're probably not making much of a margin at all ... Also, the reliability and quality of [the drivers'] service has dropped a great deal from when the apps first launched.
“The fear of losing any extra revenue is the major factor [in not abandoning the services]. The fear of there being so much competition that you have to provide your business with every opportunity to create turnover.”
Perth’s hospitality scene is its own beast, says Ben Atkinson, chef and owner of fried-chicken and (all-round good-time joint) Meat Candy. While he has similar gripes with delivery drivers, profit losses and quality control, Atkinson says the apps can maintain a trickle of business on quieter nights.
“If you’re not on a busy street, it’s kind of hard,” says Atkinson. “If your venue is a bit isolated, these apps can help a little. We might not have people in the restaurant on a slow night, at least we’re getting revenue from somewhere.”
Across the country, though, it’s clear the potential loss of exposure remains the toughest barrier to ditching the apps. Ben Chiu is co-owner of Ben’s Burgers in Brisbane, which has only three classic options on the menu and offers no alterations (except for adding bacon). He and co-owner (and brother) Nick have accepted deference to delivery apps as a modern hospitality reality.
“Being online does broaden your reach. But it’s hard to tell how many are actually new customers, and how many already knew about you and just looked for you in the app,” Chiu says. “At the end of the day, if we’re not on there, people will just get something else.”
A spokesperson for Uber Eats responded to Broadsheet’s requests for comment, saying: "We take seriously the role we play in helping our partners make the most of new technology by providing tools to help them thrive, including insights about service quality, customer satisfaction and sales.
"We want to ensure we continue to offer the most rewarding experience for our partners, so they continue to choose us. We encourage restaurants to reach out to us with any issues they may be having so we can work to resolve them.”
Deliveroo did not respond to requests for comment, but it did recently launch Marketplace+, a new initiative that gives businesses their own delivery drivers access to the app. According to a statement from Deliveroo, the move is expected to double the number of Australian restaurants using the app to 12,000 by the end of the year, and there are plans to rapidly expand into more regional areas.
So what can we agree on? For one thing, it’s an exceptionally tough time to own a restaurant in Australia. Fortunately for business owners, no app – not yet, anyway – can replace a chat with the bartender at your local, deciphering a chalk-scrawled specials board, or that moment when you peer over at a neighbour’s order and ask: “What’re you having?”
Orr sums it up best. “The best way to support your fave restaurants is by going to dine in them,” he says. “Go hungry, go thirsty. We’d always much rather see you in person and build a relationship than have you just be a number on a screen.”